“Black Manhood and The Best Man Holiday” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

***Spoilers All Throughout!***
I will admit that I am happy to see a spate of Black films that provide a more pronounced display of progressiveness for Black men. It’s refreshing. I recognize that much of it has to do with how President Obama’s demeanor and measured confidence has fascinated a country that didn’t think that Black men possessed such capacity. Interest in Obama raises class and media-influenced  issues around what is “real” Black masculinity (Byron Hurt deals with this brilliantly in the video below):

Similarly, shows like Scandal have been doing the same for Black women–in contrast to say, Basketball Wives (and yes, debates about the efficacy of both types of shows abound–and rightly so). For a people who’ve had such a tenuous relationship with media, it will continue to be so… Nevertheless, as a media analyst, I’m abuzz…even when I’m disappointed. But the film doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it gives others an example of grace in that the fighting, cussing, and materialism one might hate in stereotypical reality shows are in the film, but tempered by a humanity that other shows lack.

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Today, at 11:00am while my son was in school, I finally saw The Best Man Holiday, a film that highlights the lives of a group Black friends in my generation. I must admit I am stunned at some of the life changes that have occurred since seeing the original, and it’s changed my viewing experience. When the first came out, I was newly engaged, no kids, and out with my crew of “Best Men” friends. Now, I’m  a very busy father, a widower, and living in a city with few to no friends. As I said, life changes. The 9 other people in the theatre seemed to also enjoy it…even though I questioned if the 80+ year old Caucasian couples appreciated all of the cultural subtleties, but who knows? [With my luck, to confront they’d likely be the only White couple who Malcolm X went to for counsel…] Anyway, I must say it gave me plenty to think about, considering that it’s my generation finally being displayed with nuance.

What I love about both of these films was how much I saw myself in each of the men. Much like my sister’s love for the sitcom Living Single, I get excited at their exchanges, laughing about when I did such dumb things (and God willing, the dumb things I have yet to do). 😉  I have gone through each personality, each type of relationship, and each emotional high and low in the film. Some were fun to relive, while others… Okay, so let’s the get the hardest one out of the way. I have been Lance (played by the ageless Morris Chestnut), albeit without all the money, fame, and thirty-pack abs. But taking care of a sick wife? Been there. Unable to do a damn thing about her pain but sit and watch? Yup. To watch her die in my arms and raise our offspring as if I’m not completely immobilized? Check. (The anniversary of my wife Desiree Lowe-Johnson’s passing was last week).

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Even the overall protective posture he maintained with his partner Mia (Monica Calhoun) was ALL me. I would’ve killed a baby seal if it removed the smile from her face. As far as masculinity is concerned here, Western masculinity is all about controlling the outcome, controlling destiny…fate be damned. And this is part of Harper’s (Taye Diggs) difficulty with God…the extent to which he cannot control the outcome of his financial difficulties or navigate his sense of powerlessness over his life. I’ve felt it. You’ve felt it. I thought we could find a cure for my wife’s Sickle Cell Anemia simply because I loved her and wanted it to be so. But it wasn’t meant to be. And that was the problem, negotiating what I could do, and what I couldn’t, while trying to live up to an idea of masculinity that was completely impossible.

But Malcolm Lee’s Best Man series offers alternatives to such impossibilities, which is what this blog (and the quest for Black Progressiveness) is all about, offering alternatives to idolizing masculinities that are detrimental to one’s health (and the families endangered by insufficient masculinities), whether that be due to internalizing extreme, toxic emotions or due to a bullet from a violent altercation. When Harper finally abandons his silence and shares his pain and fear with his pregnant wife, Robyn (played by the lovely Sanaa Lathan–can we pause in silence at the sight of her?………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..ok, done), this is the moment when we’re witnessing a shift from a traditional masculinity to a progressive masculinity. My father’s and grandfather’s generation were told that to be men, they had to internalize that fear, and for the sake of the family, provide a protective cocoon from the world–to their own detriment. Thus, on average, they experienced a shorter life span than their wives and suffered increased hypertension, as well other conditions exacerbated by stress (glad to say Pops is still taking on the world though). But here, Harper shares it with her: a lost job, an ethically questionable business opportunity, and his vulnerability. Why is this such a risk? Because unlike all of the women who might read this :), others would leave him for not being man enough. Look, when a woman leaves you because she doubts your masculinity because you didn’t make enough money, or couldn’t fix her car with a toothpick, or that you weren’t cool or dangerous enough, or you didn’t dominate or beat someone up, the shit hurts. But it doesn’t end with earning women’s approval. Jobs, income opportunities, and even friendships can seem to depend on performing a typically self-damaging, emotionally isolating, traditional masculinity. Here, Harper’s desperation had a redemptive end to it. But, it’s not long before he abandons his fear to protect her from her fears about losing another pregnancy. This is a slightly problematic, yet realistic gesture. Years ago, we lost three babies, one I held in my arms, incapable of breathing, so Robyn’s fear was more than understandable to me, as was his. I remember deleting shows from the DVR that showed unsuccessful pregnancies so my wife wouldn’t see them, or preventing someone form asking why she didn’t have a child, or turning a corner a block early so she wouldn’t see the baby stroller someone was pushing. Likely ineffective, but it was all I could do. For Harper, ideally, it would’ve been best to have created the type of relationship where such a dialogue would’ve been the norm rather than the exception. Instead he implodes out of fear and desperation, exacerbating both of their fears. His progressiveness, then, is a knee-jerk reaction rather than a purposeful practice, but it is a much needed transition nevertheless.

As for the rest of the guys, I’ve also lived Lance’s condescending invulnerability, Harper’s direction-less introspection, Quentin’s (Terrence Howard) lustful escapism, Murch’s (Harold Perrineau) naive optimism, and even Brian’s (Eddie Cibrian) “shining white knight on a horse” posture (no pun intended). They each claimed a special place in my memory because of how they reminded me of periods of my own life. But as edifying as each’s approach to life was, they were also each fraught with problems. Lance’s arrogant obliviousness to the reality of losing his wife–something Mia predicts–leaves him unprepared for the worst of it all. For him it was at the grave site, for me it was not hearing her breathing (in bed) the first night after she died. His scream was reminiscent of a sound I hope to never make again. Moving on… Harper’s difficulty with trust leaves him alone, even amongst friends, while Quentin’s hilariously-performed irresponsibility provides him no substantive support. Murch’s slow progression into his own sense of self has him hurt his wife because he can’t take responsibility for his own thoughts and feelings. But the most beguiling was Brian, not so much the character as much as his approach (this is Jordan’s, Nia Long’s, love interest). Mmmmmmm….Nia Long…but I digress. He patiently waits for her to “need” him. Dangerous business that, as he may find himself waiting indefinitely in real life… That one has fooled me too once or twice.

What I loved most about the film was the sense of family these friends have developed, and the conflicted ways that new people (especially spouses) have been woven into the mix. This mirrors so many of our lives, making it interesting to watch. It made me appreciate my own brotherhood with other progressive brethren, each a brilliant and loving father. I loved seeing Murch’s excitement at the sight of his daughters, because when I am lucky enough to see my brothers from college, I can’t think of one who didn’t embody this, and yet there are so few films that show the family side of Black men. To those such as my Pop, my grandfather, Mark, Norm, Eric, Big Mike, cousin Perry, cousin Donald, Dante, Ajamu, Labelle, Carl, Gary, Peter, Marcus, and Obafemi, whom have all been tremendous family men in the face of all kinds of obstacles, this film is for you…

The choice to end the film on hope and life was brilliant. Kudos to Mr. Lee. And this narrative didn’t run from the truth… Life can be vicious. But with the right people with you, it’s worth it. And if you don’t have the right people, just wait. As the emcee KRS-One once said, “Stay alive and all things will change around.” Better yet, walk with “The Universal Mother” and stay lifted!

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5 thoughts on ““Black Manhood and The Best Man Holiday” by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

  1. Hasan, fantastic analysis of the portrayal of Black masculinity in “The Best Man Holiday”. I, too, could see segments of myself in the characters. I was said to hear you lost Desiree, but happy that you and your son are doing well.

  2. Good movie. Awesome review, Brutha! I Wold have loved to have been in the theater with bros from the cipher when I saw it. I truly appreciate the fact that I have shared experiences (joy & pain) with you, and several of the men you shouted out, that too this day inform my manifestation of manhood. I am grateful.

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